A Mexican bandit tells the story of his life as a lover and an outlaw in 19th-century California in this novel.
The California Rangers have finally killed the notorious Joaquín Murrieta, horse thief, murderer, and the scourge of the Old West. They have preserved his severed head in a jar of whiskey to present it to the authorities to collect a handsome reward. Joaquín, still sentient, notes wryly, “When whiskey goes to your head it is not so bad really...if you no longer have a stomach.” Joaquín proceeds to relate his rather colorful life story, starting in a small village in Sonora. He grows up among scorpions and a threatening panther in a world steeped in magic and folklore. As a teen, he spends three years learning to track and capture mustangs before returning home to marry his beloved Rosita. He and Rosita and three others decide to head north to California, arriving in San Francisco in the 1840s, early enough that they can still pick sizable gold nuggets out of the ground. The environment they inhabit is at first ideal but soon turns rough, yet the stallionlike Joaquín is undeterred. Settling in a secret valley, Joaquín steals horses and other people’s gold for a living, survives innumerable dicey encounters, and gains a reputation as a menace to society. Frustrated by gringo law and the Rangers, who are constantly pursuing him, Joaquín devises one last plot to take California for all it is worth and triumphantly ride back to Sonora with Rosita. But the Rangers have other plans for the bandit. Litton’s (Geminga: Sword of the Shining Path, 2016) novel has an irresistible premise, and the preserved head of the infamous Joaquín as narrator works very well, particularly in the book’s almost serene conclusion. The characters are fiery and real, and the indefatigable Joaquín has as much passion and even sweetness as he does bloodlust. Drenched in Mexican lore and California history, the story stands out for its convincing portrayal of the time period’s diverse competing interests and for its Spanish-laced prose, which has many wonderful lines. But the book is a bit long and somewhat overwritten; a more concise narrative would have helped to highlight the novel’s key events.
Full of adventure, history, and passion, this tale delivers an exciting ride through the gold rush with a singular hero.